Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Devil, the Wise Man, and the Holy Fool

Dostoevsky draws on religious and folk archetypes to give an allegorical depth to his novel. It's a way to show how a common trove of cultural meaning – such as religion – connects to everyday life.

Perhaps the three most important archetypes are the devil, the wise man, and the holy fool. While the devil, or Satan, is often represented as a towering, threatening figure of evil and terror – or, as in Milton's Paradise Lost , a Romantic, anti-establishment anti-hero – Dostoevsky's devils are decidedly less intimidating. The frailty of Ivan's Grand Inquisitor, and the shabbiness of the devil who meets Ivan in his room, and even Smerdyakov's sickly physiognomy, all indicate how evil lacks the vitality that comes from faith and love.

The two actual fools in the novel – Father Ferapont and Stinking Lizaveta – are at the margins of society, but still have an important place in it: Father Ferapont is honored by the other monks, and Stinking Lizaveta is cared for by the townspeople. These figures on the margins are revered or at least respected for being otherworldly, so intimately connected to the divine order that they seem mad.

The wise man may seem to be the opposite of the holy fool, but they are actually quite intimately connected. The truly wise man often appears to be a fool to others; his otherworldly wisdom doesn't compute with the worldly concerns of most people. The characters' reactions to the two "wise men" of the novel – Zosima and Alyosha – are usually uninhibited laughter and joy. When Zosima – in his early life as the young officer Zukovy – concedes the duel and explains his spiritual enlightenment to others, he is greeted by puzzlement and joy. Similarly, characters automatically react to Alyosha with friendship and confidence, if not joy. Zosima and Alyosha's friendliness bears out the thesis presented in the novel that "a man must suddenly set an example, and draw the soul from its isolation for an act of brotherly communion, though it be with the rank of holy fool" (6.2.d).

Nesting Novels

The Brothers Karamazov is often interrupted by long narratives that don't further the plot and could probably stand on their own as novels. Mini-novels nested within the novel, such as Ivan's "The Grand Inquisitor" fantasy and Zosima's "Life and Times," serve as allegories to help develop the message of the novel as a whole. Indeed, these two stories represent two radically opposed world views that are tested in the course of the narrative. Significantly, Zosima's "Life and Times" is actually authored by Alyosha, writing out his recollection of Zosima's words. Alyosha's act of writing parallels the work of the narrator in The Brothers Karamazov: both attempt to produce an image of human goodness in the face of great suffering, with the same universal appeal that Zosima ascribes to the simple stories in the Bible.

Money, Money, Money

Money isn't just the source of conflict in The Brothers Karamazov; it symbolizes a basic absence of values in modern society. While everybody and their mother seems to gab on about Dmitri's "3,000 roubles," the irony is that no one except Dmitri has ever counted the money. "3,000 roubles" is a fantasy, a collective hallucination, a mirage generated by word of mouth. Even the actual 3,000 roubles – the wad of incriminating cash Smerdyakov has stashed in his room – can't save Dmitri from the fabled 3,000 roubles everyone imagines he has. This imaginary, valueless money is made all the more symbolic by the fact that many of the wealthy characters – Fyodor Karamazov, Kuzma Samsonov, Madame Khokhlakov, Pyotr Miusov – are also the most morally bankrupt.


The novel constantly refers to the earth as a source of life. The epigraph prepares us for the earth as a metaphor for spiritual renewal (see "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more). Zosima himself encourages everyone to kiss the ground while they pray. This gesture is not only one of humble obedience toward God, but a way to connect to the Russian soil, the land that provides a living for a largely rural Russia. Moments of revelation often occur when the characters experience natural beauty, as when Alyosha steps outside in the "Cana of Galilee" chapter:

The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens," we are told, "the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars.

These recurring references to the earth prepare us for the "earthy force" of the Karamazovs, who become a symbol for the Russian people as a whole.

The Temptations

Each of the Karamazov brothers is subjected to three temptations, a nod to the Biblical story of the temptation of Christ that provides the foundation for Ivan's Grand Inquisitor. Their fates are largely determined by how well they resist these temptations. Ivan becomes mentally unhinged after his temptations – the three conversations with Smerdyakov in the months leading up to the trial. After his own three torments during his interrogation by the prosecutor, Dmitri begins to accept his suffering as a path to redemption. Even Alyosha is tempted: first by the death of the elder Zosima, then by Rakitin, and finally by Grushenka. He successfully survives these temptations with a stronger sense of faith that carries him through the rest of the novel. Notably, each of the brothers experiences a kind of vision or revelation: Alyosha in the "Marriage at Cana" episode, Dmitri on his second trip to Mokroye, and Ivan with his devil.

The Children

The passages devoted to the circle of schoolboys around Kolya and Ilyusha are only loosely connected to the main plot but carry a heavy allegorical significance. In the novel, the suffering of children is invoked by Ivan as a reason to reject God: he finds it inexcusable that God could allow the suffering of innocents. The irony, of course, is that Ivan doesn't really seem to care about the suffering of children. The circle of schoolchildren that surrounds Kolya and Ilyusha experience in miniature, as it were, the larger tragedy developing around the Karamazov brothers. They experience a moment of communion and reconciliation at Ilyusha's grave that the adults – with the exception of Alyosha – never achieve, which perhaps suggests that we are all born with a goodness with which we lose touch as we grow older and more focused on worldly concerns.

Of Onions and Troikas

The Brothers Karamazov will sometimes break out a startling image to stand in for a concept. For example, Grushenka tells a story about an old woman whose guardian angel attempts to pull her out of hell with an onion (yes, all the angel could muster was an onion). When Grushenka mentions that her act of kindness is her "onion," the onion serves as shorthand for the idea that even one small act of goodness can redeem a soul. Another notable example is the "galloping troika" of the prosecutor's speech. Despite the narrator's ironic treatment of the prosecutor, the image of the galloping troika as a stand-in for a Russia careening out of control is powerfully evocative.

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